(Photo courtesy of Tifosi)
One position to watch tonight is the battle in the midfield, where several players will fight it out for one or two spots on Bob Bradley’s 23-man World Cup roster, which will be released Wednesday live on ESPN (1 pm EST).
In all likelihood, Bradley will take nine midfielders to South Africa. Of these, Donovan, Dempsey, Clark, Edu, and Bradley, Torres, and Feilhaber are virtual locks. That leaves two spots that are potentially up for grabs.
Stuart Holden should take up the first spot (Bolton Wanderers, England). Holden is a strong winger, who should be one of the first names that Bradley turns to off his bench. With Holden, the only question is fitness. Suffering a broken leg in his last competitive match (US v. Holland, 3 March 2010), Holden should play tonight and his game fitness can be evaluated. As long as he plays OK, he should be on the final roster, but a solid performance tonight could go a long way towards earning him some playing time in South Africa. If his fitness and touch are not up to par, and a couple of the other potential midfielders have a strong performance, Holden may find his spot in jeopardy. I would consider him a virtual lock at this point, however.
This leaves one spot on the plane and four candidates. The four candidates are DaMarcus Beasley (Unattached), Alejandro Bedoya (Orebro SK, Sweden), Sasha Kljestan (Chivas USA, MLS), and Robbie Rogers (Columbus Crew).
If this spot is up for debate, each of these four players will play some part in tonight’s match. If Bradley leaves them on the bench, his decision has already been made. Look for the relatively untested (at least at the national team level) Bedoya to play, as well as Beasley and Kljestan. Rogers, it seems, is likely the odd man out, as he remains a longshot to make the final 23. Right now, it seems as if Beasley is the favorite, followed by Bedoya and Kljestan, followed by Rogers.
But, let’s assume that at least two or three of these players gets the chance to impress their boss tonight. Here are my three key things to look for, and what I think Bob Bradley should be looking for, in tonight’s match.
1) He must be able to possess the ball comfortably.
This may seem like a no brainer, but it is the critical criterion by which these four players will be judged. This will be especially important for Beasley. Beasley has had some shocking displays of giving the ball away (see the first half of US v Brazil in the group stage of the Confederations Cup), and tonight he must show that he can carefully possess the ball. If he fails to do this, then he will not find himself on that final 23-man roster.
2) He must be able to defend.
Bradley is a defensive-minded coach, and even though he wants his midfielders to break out in attack, everyone on a Bradley team is called upon to defend. Here is where Kljestan has the edge, he has played for Bradley at the club and at the national team level, and he knows how important his defensive performance will be in earning him a spot on the 23-man roster. Beasley also must show that he will work hard on defense. If he appears not to care, then Bradley may just choose a player he knows will take care of his defensive responsibilities.
3) He must be creative.
Let’s be honest, there is a good chance that none of these players will play in the World Cup. But, if they do, they should be able to play in a situation where the United States needs a goal. Thus, they must be creative, and show that they can be dangerous both with their shot and with their pass. Good service, solid strikes, and solid positioning are key here. If one player can stand out in this department, Bradley may elect to go with him. From history, Beasley definitely has the edge here, but if Kljestan is on form, he may just be able to sneak onto the 23-man roster on tonight’s performance.
Going in, this is Beasley’s spot to lose. But if Kljestan has a good match, Bradley may go with an old favorite. Bedoya simply does not have the national team experience for that final midfielder spot, but in four years time he could be invaluable.
For what it is worth, if I am calling the shots and picking my 23, here is what I have before the game.
GK: Howard, Hanhnemann, Perkins.
Def: Bocanegra (capt) , Gooch, DeMerit, Pearce, Spector, Bornstein, Cherundolo, Goodson.
Mid: Donovan, Dempsey, Holden, Edu, Bradley, Feilhaber, Clark, Torres, Beasley.
Fwd: Altidore, Buddle, Gomez.
And my starting XI would be:
Def: Bocanegra, Gooch, DeMerit, Spector;
Mid: Donovan, Edu, Bradley, Holden;
Sean McElroy is a contributing writer for The Yanks Are Coming.